Tag Archives: spiritual

Many Lallas: An Interview With Ranjit Hoskote

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Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla recasts the poems (vakhs) of the 14th century mystic Lalleshwari as the collaboration of many authors over six centuries. Excerpts from a conversation during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival.

You’ve entitled your book of translations as “I, Lalla”, and believe that although there was a historical figure (a poet and mystic) by that name, over the centuries the body of work that was attributed to her was in fact composed by multiple people, many Lallas. So on the one hand you have the palimpsest and on the other, a persona that emerges from it. What was your experience of working with both?

It’s actually an inference you make after going through the material – you realize that it’s actually a polyphony. The corpus attributed to Lalla is a collection of many tonalities, lines of argument, different kinds of musicality, and different bodies of imagery. And it is possible through some turns of phrase and choice of words to infer that certain pieces came from earlier or later periods. There are certain internal evidences. For instance, certain administrative references (which existed in the 18th century but not in the 14th). Or when Shiva is referred to as “sahib”, as a word for “lord”. The poems have been continuously rephrased for contemporary usage; they are not frozen in an old Kashmiri text. There is no mythic old Kashmiri text.

You’ve used the word “confluentuality” to situate Lalla in spaces which are, alternately or at once, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other identities. This is a confluentuality that unnerves those with narrow sectarian interests. Tell us more.

I think the hard-edged identities of religion or ethnicity are to a great extent modern constructs. If you look at pre-modern India, what you’re really looking at is a set of intersecting geographies. The three major dynamics are trade routes, pilgrimage routes and invasion routes. You find a constant migration of people: new cults, new texts, new religious ideas and also new secularities. From the 12th to the 18th century this is what you have. A lot of this activity is in fact confluential – people who extend themselves beyond what is permitted to them canonically. We’re still playing out the politics of the 20th century to a large extent – which was a really divisive, annihilative politics, creating hard-edged identities at the expense of the other. In a situation like that everybody suffers but what are most damaged are forms that developed at the intersections. A particularly sad example internationally would be the culture of the Arab-speaking Jews, a flourishing culture from Morocco, Iraq and Syria, which completely fell between the lines of Zionist and Arab interests. It’s impossible to continue, pushed into an either/or logic. The imagination becomes less capacious in these terms.

The term secularism is often upheld as the preferred, politically correct narrative – how does an essentially syncretic figure like Lalla add to or complicate the debate?

Secularism is technically an equidistance from all religions. In India it’s come to represent an ability to embrace all religions. The tragedy is that however you interpret it, it involves simplifying or damaging the sense of all religions, their richness of detail. If by secular you mean something that is skeptical of the sacred, then that’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the religious imagination. My problem with this is that secularists tend to embrace the cultural concepts of religion while shying away from the philosophical and ideological.

This work is also interesting in the debate about cultural authenticity. You’ve said that “authenticity suggests an original against which comparisons can be made”, and that Lalla is “a perfect argument for how culture is always a hybrid invention”.

Until the earlier 20th century, the vakhs were orally transmitted. In the 1920’s there was a print version, which assumes authority, so what were earlier versions became variants. So long as it was oral or in the form of script it was still an open-ended text. This theory I’ve put forward of a contributory lineage allows us to look critically at the whole concept of authorship. From my point of view the corpus is full of performers, writers, editors and the unlettered people of the [Kashmiri] valley. In the nature of how such contributions work, what is important is not the name of the author (which cannot be known) but attributes made.

Men on quests of faith had the acceptable trajectory of being a son, a householder, a retiree and then a renunciate to look to. Female seekers like Lalla had to reject the system entirely. What are your thoughts on how gender might have come into play in the life and work of Lalla?

In the life more than the work. I would think the Kashmiri Saivite tradition has always been a tradition of householders. Even if there were ascetics who retreated to the forests, they were chiefly householders. For Lalla there was no other option. Her spiritual quest was at odds with what was expected of her as a woman, so she took up the life of a wandering seeker. The conventional reading has been to talk about the historical personage using scanty biographical evidence, mostly chronicles. To my mind this is not the most productive way to do this. I am more interested in the poems. The vakhs themselves contain very little personal information. I find it difficult to reduce it to a gender position. A statistical example would be that there are not more than four or five references to female labour in the vakhs. The rest are of male labour. It is wishful thinking to regard this in a gendered sort of prism.

You’ve worked on these translations for two decades, and as you belong ancestrally to the Kashmiri diaspora, lived with the idea or presence of Lalla for much longer. How has Lalla shaped your own writing or sense of the world?

I think that as with all translation projects, you are shaped by what you translate in ways that are manifest and sometimes not so manifest. It’s been very important to me in terms of extending my own work. Many people have commented on how these translations don’t sound like my poetry. The aim of the translations has been to restore the jagged, colloquial, very sharp quality of the originals. It’s been an amazing opportunity.  It has allowed me to sort through a number of ideas about the sacred and to understand the sacred as something that stands beyond orthodoxies. The sacred is compelling and it is elusive; it eludes the names and the forms.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: Certain Completed Geometries

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When I realised that my wallet had been stolen at a train station on my way back from a weekend in another city, my first thought was about my debit card, which a phone call quickly took care of. My second thought was about the currency it had held, which was also abated by the realization that I had – serendipitously – been unable to withdraw more than a small amount at the ATM the previous night, and what more, for reasons completely out of character, had stashed enough change in my pocket for a couple of teas and a plate of hot bhaji for the six hours ahead. My third thought, and the one that made my heart momentarily plunge the most, was about the talismans that wallet had held.

There had been two – both gifts. A Buddhist one for grief, given to me the night before the first anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And another one, which had been personally blessed by a deceased mystic, and which had come to me through a surreal collusion of dreams, magic space and psychic reciprocity. The second was profoundly sentimental; the first less so – but both were meaningful. What startled me was not that they were gone – but that they had gone at the same time.

I hadn’t always been this sort of person – the sort who wears, who keeps, who trusts. But ever since I became this sort of person, I’ve seen that the nature of talismans is to offer temporary protection. The nature of talismans, in essence, is to get lost. We ourselves grow too attached to them to let them go, let alone recognise that their work has been done. They must be wrenched from us in acts of fate, in seeming carelessness, and we must accept their disappearances as markers of certain completed geometries.

The carnelian stone I carried in my jeans pocket from one crucial meeting until I lost it somewhere in a flurry of hotel rooms, while the career catalysts it had accompanied culminated in certain profound and quantifiable rewards. The dead butterfly that simply vanished from my wardrobe upon my return from a shattering retreat. Time and again I have found them, recognized them as talismanic, and learned – after the initial sense of disappointment and shock – to acknowledge their departures as necessary closures.

What does this mean then, to lose these two amulets at once? One was for forgetting, the other for remembering. The first was to help with the surrender that bereavement demands, the other was the lamp left lit so I could find my way back to a place that in moments – in this day to day reality – seems sometimes to have been almost illusory.

I would like to think that perhaps I have finally learnt how to see in all sorts of darkness – that the heart has memorised the map, and neither torches nor known yet treacherous paths are necessary to return to or to honour that which has been lost.

What have I forgotten, and what have I remembered? With both of these talismans gone, I wonder now not just what has come to its denouement, but what I will find next. What will it see me through? And when it goes, what will I have learnt to see by then?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Touching Souls

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When I was little and lived in homes with real gardens, one of my favourite things to do was to step on the thottanchinungi plant. Its little ferns would shrink to the touch, and then slowly open, repeating these gestures until the agitator bored of them. There’s a rhyme I remember the beginning of from those days, in Tamil. It went something like, thottanchinungi, thodupudingi: the fern that shrivelled up and snivelled like someone who had their earrings pulled.

I would eventually become something of an animist. I looked to coasts and trees and red earth. But I only remembered the shy, sensitive thottanchinungi at the beginning of the year. I’d been in the countryside for some weeks by then, anticipating catharsis yet entirely unprepared for it. It was a morning that came amidst many things, mostly devastating ones, but I remember a sense of exhilaration as my friend Rane and I sped off to even more rural interiors on an old, green motorbike. I think we were heading to a lake, but mostly, it was for the ride. Somewhere on the way back, I caught sight of the back of a statue, a typical Kali, a cacophony of arms and legs, and we stopped. I had to see it.

It turned out that what we had discovered was a Tantric shrine. “The serious shit,” Rane said, pointing to the shed full of tools for invocation. No one was around. I prayed that day with the promise to come back before I left this surreal dimension I’d found myself in for what was supposedly the real world. I had no idea then what was coming – I would not return before I went back, and there was nothing to go back to. The unraveling had only just begun. “It’s okay,” my friend said, weeks later. “The account has been opened. You’ll make the deposit some day.”

But I didn’t know all this then.

Climbing off the bike, my eyes following the flight of an astonishing black, white and red butterfly, was when I saw it, my old childhood friend the thottanchinungi. Of all the kinds of weed involved in my catharsis, this was the most symbolic. The mimosa pudica was the ultimate metaphor for the state of my heart that morning, and not just mine. We wait to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be touched. And then we retreat. We fold into ourselves and wait to be left alone. We burn that bridge and bloom again. We burn that bridge but we forget the way back, and over and over and over we build and burn, trapped in our private purgatories.

How easy to curl within ourselves. How hard to stay open, even to the things we think we have been waiting for all our lives. There is resilience. And then there is, simply, running away.

But although the plant I saw that day looked like the thottanchinungi, it didn’t respond to my foot. It refused to shrivel, but I no longer had the time or curiosity to play with it as I once did. Maybe it was something else, some other herb. Something that looked like one thing but was another one entirely. Unequivocal disappointment can be easy to accept. Just ask the thottanchinungi.

But maybe it was the thottanchinungi, only a stronger variant. What I know is this: it held its own. It didn’t shrivel at my skin, but rested calmly against it. Its soul to my sole. By refusing to recoil it stayed receptive to something else, something that held it open, thriving, fully unfurled.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: For Fear, Or To Overcome It

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I have been thinking of my grandmother’s death for most of my life. In the beginning, it was her fault. When we were children, she would laugh about coming back to haunt us when she died, a loose-haired, lolled-tongued cliché. Perhaps this was meant as admonishment, but the heart warms to remember. This was a woman who would sit at windows with a cup of tea and casually remark on the ghost inhabiting the nearby tree. For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe.

Years later, living elsewhere, I became possessed by a sort of paranoia about her mortality. I would dream of getting phone calls telling me she had died, and wake weeping, believing them real. There were other sorts of dreams: like one I cherish, in which she told me, “I am you.”

She lived for a year after I came home again. And one day I woke up and she really was dead, but I already knew, and so I followed the sound of crying, spent an hour consoling others, and went to work.

When the first of my sisters was born, my grandmother’s youngest sibling and only brother died suddenly. She went to the funeral, took the next flight back, washed her hair and returned to the maternity ward with a packed dinner, all in the same day. I wonder now if she had known. If she too had watched her brother in the months before, the death in his bones rattling like a pair of dice no one else could hear. Perhaps, as it was for me, foreshadowing was not frightening, but only preparation for a seamless transition.

The dreaming has already begun for my grandfather and I. She told him to stop crying because she is happy. She told me, when I tried to follow them both down a coast, that I had to stay. That she would be back, but I had to stay. This was my dream on the worst day of my grief, when I hoped to die with my grandfather so I would not be left orphaned.

In her heartbreaking memoir, Paula, Isabel Allende wrote of dreaming of her comatose daughter the night before she died. When Allende awoke, Paula’s rabbit fur slippers lay next to her bed.

All her life, my grandmother lost her smile the minute a camera came near her. Yet for some reason, on an evening four years ago that I barely recall, she let me apply makeup on her and take a picture. She is not just smiling in it – she is effervescent.

This is the picture that my grandfather found the morning that she died. This is the picture garlanded in the living room. I do not feel her gone. Every time I step out, there she is, just as she always was.

I was told once that white feathers are the markers of angels. There was one under my desk at work yesterday. I smiled but didn’t think about it – my life is full of synchronicities and surrealities; if I was an atheist, my “faith” would be tested daily.

An hour later, someone asked if the thing on my shoulder was real. It flew to the ceiling when flicked – a moth, like the one my sister had turned to find at the sound of rapped knuckles against a window in our grandparents’ room. Moths in many cultures are the spirits of the dead. It must been with me from when I came indoors. The white feather was gone when I went back to my desk.

For fear or to overcome it, she meant for us to believe. And I do, Ammamma. I do.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Honouring Our Destinies

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A few weeks ago, I watched the Italian film Il Postino, inspired by the legendary Pablo Neruda, and found myself weeping in its closing moments. I shut my laptop and held myself as sobs racked my body. I was weeping not for the quaint charms of the film, but for Mario Ruoppolo, the guileless postman who worships Neruda to tragic consequences. I was weeping because I knew by then that I was not him, and could not fathom why I was this lucky.

Two days before this, I’d sat across from my publisher and watched a cheque for what I still find an enormous figure being cut. It was a surreal moment. The year before, I had a jar of coins from which I would count out enough change in order to eat. I was unemployed, on a precarious visa, everything in absolute ruins. Things happened. I moved back to India believing it was the end of my life.

It was. It was the end of a life in a horrible place in many senses of the word. But just a year later, my publisher was saying as the cheque was signed, “I don’t pity you. You are too talented to be pitied.” I wasn’t allowed to say thank you or cry.

And so I cried for Mario.

There is still a part of me that is a friendless 12-year old, the bus always dropping me at school forty minutes early. My classroom that year was a converted chapel, a detail I find appropriate in retrospect. Every single morning, I would write a song. Those forty minutes were my sanctuary. I wrote then because I had nothing else to do. Without writing, in the eyes of many including myself, I didn’t exist.

It’s astonishing to realise that only five years later, I was appearing in magazines and getting fan mail. It’s even more astonishing to write this to you today, having just seen the final proofs for my first book, knowing that in a matter of days, it will be complete.

The journey has been long, and is not over. It’s a journey that has shaken the agnosticism out of me. It’s been startling to see how people seem to have fallen out of the sky with their admiration and generosity, their dedication sometimes outshining mine.

An investor who refuses a cut from the profits; a photographer who wants only a good deed as payment; designers, pre-production and publicity people who work for free – at what point in the last decade did I go from being the girl in the chapel to this? I am humbled by the knowledge that these gifts are not for me; they are for the work that is bigger than anything I am or will be.

Instead of being reassured, I encountered my own resistance. Not believing myself deserving, I became self-sabotaging. I was so frazzled I literally had to sit on my hands during editorial meetings. But the book was a juggernaut out of my control, and I had to give in. I had to let go of my dream in order to allow it to happen.

A friend told me, addressing my anxieties, “Well, if it’s like good pasta, it better be a little al dente“. The little bit of rawness is what makes it perfect.

I am no Mario Ruoppolo, and neither am I Neruda. But I am the girl in the chapel who grew up to be the woman who wrote Witchcraft and whatever – little or much – it accounts to. I don’t believe fortunes are arbitrary. I see now that I am obligated to honour mine with every instrument I am gifted.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Waiting For The Dawn

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Last week I went up to my roof and lay on my back to pray to the night sky.

I was praying because I had begun to feel desperate about an unresolved situation. Something I had worked on for years and seemed only weeks from completion had been snatched away without explanation, taking with it something newer and unexpected yet just as painful to lose, leaving me confused and frail of footstep. I prayed for a sign – something that acknowledged the darkness but showed the coming of the light.

I opened my eyes. Immediately, I saw a star falling.

If there’s anything I am, it’s a believer. And to me, there are no coincidences – only the exquisite synchronicities of the universe. I had asked for a sign. And I had gotten it – one that had proved to be auspicious in the past, in my experience.

But after the sign comes the waiting.

Ambrose Bierce wrote that patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue. I have more to add: patience is an expletive involving the person who gave birth to you and the act that produced that birth. You can definitely quote me on that one.

Still, despite a low tolerance level for enduring life as a spectator sport, I have absolute trust in the goodness of the universe. I know this not because I always believed it, but because time and again this has been revealed to be true. My life is either a series of disasters or a series of miracles (and for the juice on that, stay tuned, dig up, or wait for the biopic). These days, I am delighted by the idea that it is both.

Because while I will not forget the traumas, how else can I explain the extraordinary? Showing up in a different country with 37 dollars in my wallet and nowhere to go, but as a result of it having some of the most profound experiences I have known. Meeting by chance someone gifted with the sight who was so impressed by what he saw of my destiny that he gave me a laptop. Being forced to make the choice to sever myself from the only life I knew, but coming out of that farewell happier, luckier, wealthier than I have ever been, fresh from a time when I counted coins just so I could have dinner.

And those are only some of what has happened in a year’s time.

When I think over the events of my life, too dramatic and too convoluted to get into here, I smile inside, knowing that no matter what, I’m still here. Still here looking out for falling stars to put in my pocket, even if all they do is burn up. Because all I want from life is… everything.

Who am I to demand so much and believe myself deserving? And what nerve have I to speak to the sky and treat scientific vagaries as augury?

I don’t have the answers, and perhaps I never really will. But that’s what absolute trust is. It’s being able to wake up each morning after every breakdown, every new bullet to the soul, and not go straight back to bed, unable to face the day. I know this because I have been there. I know this because I am never going back there.

Over and over, I have seen the universe uncover its constellations – all those shimmering patterns we only have to connect to see perhaps not the whole picture, but something beautiful nonetheless.

All I know for sure is that I am still here.

My way is lit by angels. Even when it is too early to speak of them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.